A New Canvas Of Old TVs
LA-based filmmaker + visual artist Dan Dowding + electronic restoration whiz Brian Fox are the masterminds behind Media Pollution. The duo is responsible for the insanely awesome old school CRT TV installations that you may have seen displayed at various events around the city—most recently at mental health art pop-up We Rise LA + the upcoming multiartist showcase Artstagia at The Regent Theater this Friday, June 21. The pair isn’t just building nostalgic, mesmerizing TV walls, but they are motivated by a huge social mission: to creatively reuse electronics that are otherwise toxic to the environment when discarded. We caught up with Dan + Brian on the start of Media Pollution, the recycling process + the installation art.
Asymmetric Magazine: Congrats on your upcoming show at the Artstagia showcase at The Regent! What can we expect to see there?
Dan Dowding: We'll be presenting our TV Head mannequin pieces there. We just finished showing a TV wall at We Rise LA, so this one will be a little different, but we're really excited! There's going to be DJs, painters and tons of different kind of artists there.
AM: Tell us about the TV Head pieces.
DD: We'll have three screens and will be playing a variety of things—some live camera interactivity and some video loops. We have an ASMR loop that's really intense and cool!
AM: The live camera is of the viewers, right?
DD: Yeah! So you'd walk up to the screen, and your face will appear on the mannequin head.
Brian Fox: We always add in effects, too, to make the visuals different.
AM: You were inspired by the CRTs littering the curbsides of LA, which ultimately led to your first video installation POLLUTION that started it all. What was POLLUTION all about?
DD: I have a filmmaking background, and I was editing at the time. I think it was 2008. That's when I was seeing a lot of CRTs curbside in LA. I was just like, 'These are free. I'm going to start collecting these, make a canvas of televisions and make a film that will play across them.' I got a studio, so I'd have the space for them, and I met Brian right around that time. He was recycling for Isidore that got bought out by Homeboy Electronics Recycling recently. I was put in touch with him to rent TVs, but he was super into the idea and started sending me palettes of TVs. It went from me collecting them on the streets to CRTs just showing up on my doorstep. I built a 20ft x 20ft TV wall, and I explored that project for three years. The idea was to make a feature film about technology to play across a canvas made out of technology, but then I just spiraled off into an exploration of video art. I ultimately never made the film because all the artists got evicted from our studio space at the time for circumstances beyond our control. Now I'm at The Brewery Artist Lofts, and I got really into the recycling side of things and working with Brian. We've been exploring video art and working on a combination of VJ projects, TV installations, old technology installations, and boombox and speaker installations, but our passion is really the video installation work.
AM: So the first TV you found on the street, and the rest were sourced through Brian and Homeboy?
DD: I probably collected about 50 TVs from the streets of LA on my own before getting them through Brian.
AM: How many TVs do you have in your studio?
DD: We probably have over 100. And for whatever reason, people think we need more TVs, so people always bring me TVs. They’re like, 'Dan's doing TV stuff again, let's bring him TVs', which is so great! The main thing is that these devices are toxic and not good for the environment. So, if they aren't working, I'd rather people recycle them through Homeboy, and we can reuse them to make sure they don't go to landfill. That's our main message: recycling and reusing for creativity.
BF: That's my biggest goal is to find creative ways to reuse these things. I'm lucky to have worked with tons of artists on a number of installations where we sourced materials and electronics from Homeboy. For instance, Homeboy recycled all the electronics from the Jurassic Park ride at Universal, and those were used for installations at Coachella this year. There's no way you could toss that stuff out; I try to save and restore as much as I can. Overall, we are trying to do our part to give these things a second life. But the sad thing is that, even though we are recycling these things the right way, the 'right way' is still a huge loss of energy. Unfortunately, there's never a 100% recovery on most things. The problem is manufacturers don't think through what the next step of an electronic will be. For example, Homeboy, along with the largest recycling center in the country, doesn't take Apple earbuds. They are nearly impossible to recycle and really inefficient. They have small batteries that will explode if shredded, and it's extremely time consuming to remove the batteries. We keep creating products without thinking of the next life of those products. So, for me, it's all about our social mission to spread that word. This project with TVs is a small step towards getting people to understand and care about it.
AM: What's the best case scenario when it comes to recycling electronics?
BF: The best case is always reuse; reuse is 100% recovery. Unfortunately, recycling electronics carries with it a significant loss and does not recover 100% of the raw materials that went into a device. Most of the time only 40-60% of raw materials are actually recovered when recycling electronics.
AM: Do you guys often come across TVs that you can't restore?
BF: I'm sure all the time. Most of these TVs are actually high end, studio quality TVs. They are basically the same quality as a modern 4K monitor.
DD: A lot of them are recycled from 80s and 90s TV studios and newsrooms like NBC.
BF: I think the hardest thing for us is accepting the idea that we can't save everything. No one is really making CRTs anymore, and I doubt they'll ever make a CRT of that quality again.
DD: These are getting increasingly harder to come by now, so even if it doesn't work, we don't want to get rid of it. We plan on restoring everything eventually in some way.
AM: How exactly do you restore them?
BF: Typically I open up these devices and find that they have physical issues—cracked boards/solder joints or damaged inputs/outputs and fix those. Some already need new capacitors, and as they start to age, ALL of them will need new capacitors someday. We often get lucky and many of these things still work great because they were designed to last tens of thousands of hours.
DD: What's great about our partnership is that we balance each other out in this medium. I have such a content creation background, and Brian has a technical, restoration background since the 90s, and it merges so well. I've learned so much about the technical side of things through him.
AM: What's the process of programming the TV wall?
DD: The challenging part is essentially custom coding the TVs to the design of the wall. We refer to it as a ‘pi wall’ because we use raspberry pi computers. They're on a network and talk to each other to connect everything.
BF: Essentially what happens is that it's physically measured in space. The actual measurements of the TV wall are in the computer program, and we custom code it to break up the visuals into chunks to map across the TVs.
DD: That's what I wanted to do with POLLUTION, but I never got to that point. So, the recent TV walls we build are the second life to that project.
BF: The biggest challenge is troubleshooting wires.
DD: It's one of those mediums that we’re just like, 'Why isn't this working?', and then you bump a cable or something, and suddenly everything is working. Or there's just an extra space in the code or something so small that drives us crazy.
BF: We've gotten to the point where when something works, we just don't touch it.
AM: We love the social mission and message behind the reuse of technology as your canvas. What about the video art—are there any consistent themes you pursue through the content?
DD: We like to ironically satirize social media. We want to challenge your use of it, but at the same time, invite you to use it. It's hypocritical, and we want to make it fun and ironic. Also, what I love most about this medium is that it's multigenerational. Everyone has a different experience with is. It's so fun to watch kids interact with this medium, too. For me who grew up in the 90s, it's very nostalgic. But to kids now, it's not, which is so interesting to me.
BF: For We Rise, the theme was different than what we typically do. The whole theme for that project was mental health and how screens connect us. In general, I think it's all about that connection. Screens bring people together, and there's something specific about a CRT that draws you in and actually beams electrons into your brain.
I think it's all about connection. Screens bring people together, and there's something specific about a CRT that draws you in.
AM: You do a variety of work from the TV walls we're talking about to other video installations, interactive/immersive art, as well as acting as the backdrop for music videos and collaborating with other artists. Do you have a favorite project that you've done to date?
DD: In addition to our installations, I still work in film and editing regularly. These two worlds merge sometimes, and I recently directed a music video for the heavy metal band 3TEETH. We collaborated with them before, where they featured my Installation Pollution for their video for Atrophy. This time, I directed a video for them, and we did a flesh hook suspension installation. Jeanelle Mastema, a 10-yr-veteran suspensionist, was suspended in the air with 24 hooks in her skin, and we did a video installation that surrounded her. It was a pretty surreal experience! It was my first time seeing a flesh hook suspension live, and it was so intense. She had a hook in her forehead and one in her throat. It was a dream to work with Brian and direct for a band I really look up to. Plus, there's this girl literally bleeding for our project, and she thought it was the best thing ever. It really kicked off bigger projects for us. Other than that project, installation-wise, the TV wall we did for last year's Brewery Art Walk was probably my favorite. It was around 130 TVs and took up almost the entire studio space.
BF: Yeah I love working on anything that has a huge impact like that—anything using 30 TVs or more that you have to look up to is impactful. I'm really into the symmetry and making everything fit perfectly for the actual TV walls themselves. It took a lot of exploration to get it right—especially for the 130 TV wall. We're excited to take our ‘pi walls’ to the next level and sync the colors, effects and movements of the videos to music and more things like that.
AM: Speaking of music, what music are you currently listening to?
DD: I try to listen to local emerging artists. I recently saw Panther Modern headline a pop-up, and he's awesome. 3TEETH, of course. I'm also really into The Blockheads, Hot Sugar, Royal & The Serpent, and Moon Channel. I love Anderson .Paak, too.
AM: Aside from sourcing your first TVs on the streets of LA, would you say the city plays a role in your work?
DD: Definitely. I think it's the best city in the world. There are so many inspiring aspects about the city, and I feel like the environment here is so influential to my work. How can it not be? More than anything, what really inspires me about LA is being a part of this artist community. I'm constantly surrounded by individuals I see working hard every single day to chase their dreams, and it drives me to continue doing that. Plus, there's just so much happening. There's a show or event every night, it's always unique, and there's always something new. The city is responsible for why we continue to go down this path. There's been literally no road block here in terms of support from people. The art walk every six months is so motivating, too. It reignites the flame to keep working and coming up with new projects to display. We love exploring all the avenues this medium can go and collaborating with a variety of artists here.
BF: Coming across a community like this is so rare—especially at the scale and talent level that we see here. I don't think anything compares. Also, it's so awesome to be involved in huge installations at events like Coachella and to be able to work with all these old electronics that used to be used in major TV studios here in LA. For me, it totally flipped my idea of what art could be.
it totally flipped my idea of what art could be.
AM: So, what's next after The Regent?
DD: We're working on a small project for my friend who directs and performs a monthly show called Tarantina. It's a Burlesque show that's all Quentin Tarantino-inspired. The costumes are inspired from characters in his films, and it's all about women empowerment. The show will be at Club Bahia in Echo Park on July 11, and we'll be doing an installation there using more vintage TVs. It's going to be a collage of Tarantino content rotating to align with each different performance, film and character. It'll be a two hour long show, and there's a ton of really talented performers. After that, we're excited to keep evolving and see where this can go!